Esther Ottaway's first poetry collection, Blood Universe (Poets Union),
was published the same year (2006) she was adjudged 'Young Poet of the Year'.
The book's development, Esther explained in an interview with
ABC 'Poetica' at the time was due to an appreciation, once she learnt she was pregnant, of the
'subtle shifts in the way that you're valued or
you're treated or your boundaries are respected or not respected', an experience she found fascinating, even disturbing.
'I just felt there was a need for a little bit of truth-telling around pregnancy and motherhood because of the cultural tendency to portray it as blissful and privileged and rosy.' Despite an extensive search, she never managed to find many spaces where alternative points of view might find voice. 'I never found it okay to say, "Actually I'm having a really hard time being pregnant at the moment," or, "I really don't want to stop my work which I love doing," or, "I don't want the financial implications of…"' These remained the attitudes and experiences — 'the unmentionables' — too culturally difficult to negotiate.
'Fortunately, as it happened, I loved being a mother,' she added, the experience of motherhood being 'all-consuming, rewarding, happy, slow and lovely!'
Individual poems from Blood Universe: poems on pregnancy, were anthologised in national and international collections on parenthood, listed as further reading in 60 Classic Australian Poems, set to music for the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, and featured on ABC Radio National.
On the day Esther learnt of Blood Universe's acceptance for publication, she asked her publisher how long she might expect to wait till the book saw the light of day.
'About nine months,' was the reply.
* * * * * * *
Esther's second collection — Intimate, low-voiced, delicate things
(Puncher & Wattman), published in May 2021 — enjoyed a ready resonance with
readers. Gina Mercer, departing the city on a bush
retreat, packed Intimate, low-voiced, delicate things for company. 'And what good company it is! Feel like I've been having the best kind of deep conversation as the forest ravens eye off
my strawberries. This is a poet who absolutely knows how poetry works. Her craft is sublime. So good. But
it is never at the expense of holding the reader close, as the poet's voice purrs strongly and engagingly
through her exquisitely selected words.' Susan Austin offered similar homage, 'Esther's new poetry
collection is fantastic. I loved it. You could tell that it’s been a long time in
the making and that she was choosy with what to put in – every poem was real quality.'
The book's title (to quote Esther) is derived '... from the title of a poem by the American poet Elizabeth Bishop who is famous for, among other things, her villanelle called "One Art", about losing things in life. Her poem titled "Intimate, low-voiced, delicate things" is a love poem, and it carries an immediacy and a joy of being in the moment, but also an underlying sense of threat or loss or fragility."'
Esther considers it an apt description for summing up the range of poems in the book. 'I hope they are poems of duality, of navigating life's range of experiences, some joy and some experiences of loss, with my eyes open and my heart listening for nuances of emotion and truth.' She read from the collection at the Tasmanian Poetry Festival in March 2021, a little in advance of Jane Williams' launch of the book in Launceston in May.
Launching the book, Jane called to mind Esther's previous collection....
'I've been a fan of Esther Ottaway's poetry since her first, small, powerful book Blood Universe some fourteen years ago.' she said. 'The long wait has been well worth it and ... I suspect Intimate, low-voiced, delicate things could not have been conceived, written, crafted and let go of any sooner because the result is so intellectually and emotionally gratifying. This is a book about the deepest connections we make - with lovers, family, friends but ultimately self.'
Jane referred back to a reading a couple of weeks' previous, an event touching on perceptions of vulnerability within the poetry of Tasmanian Joy Elizabeth. 'Vulnerability ... is an apt word here too', Jane reflected 'and I use it respectfully and in admiration. We cannot love without vulnerability and to write about love or to sing, paint, dance it but in this case write it in the form of poetry ... is to be open to that vulnerability once more. To do this honestly and convincingly after so many have gone before you takes talent, skill and courage. Esther has these in spades.'
Jane observed that post–Blood Universe, the parent-child relationship continues to influence Esther's work to the point where, initially at least, she's assumed a role as her daughter's publisher. Layla, together with friend and fellow creative Madeline Lowe, co-authored Planet Alterra, a scif-fi novel for readers ten and over which Esther, publisher's hat firmly in place, shepherded into print through self-publisher IngramSpark. And I'm impressed, aware from my own dealings with IngramSpark that the process is no mere walk in the park — but on extending congratulations Esther's way she simply grinned, glanced across at fellow poet Kim Nolan and confessed the publishing side of the process requires skills she lacks. 'Fortunately I've supportive friends.'
* * * * * * *
Mandy Renard's cover image — titled We are so lightly here — invites a heady first impression of Intimate, low-voiced, delicate things, as do back cover blurbs by John Foulcher and Judy Johnson wherein both, by a quirk of coincidence,
employ the term 'emotional honesty' to describe Esther's work. The essence of
emotional honesty, notes Lee Kofmann in an online essay, 'isn’t a tell-it-all confessional honesty', but 'is to
do with acknowledging the complexity of human thoughts, emotions and experiences, and describing
these with appropriate nuance, even when the truth is inconvenient
or damn infuriating.' Johnson and Foulcher capture that essence well. 'Always clear and vivid,
Esther's poetry is marked by its depth of insight, emotional honesty and attention to craft.'
(John Foulcher), 'The all-important balance bar is weighted on one side with clarity
and craft and on the other with an equal portion of emotional honesty.' (Judy Johnson).
Launceston poet Joy Elizabeth often reads — or perhaps more fittingly, attempts to read — any number of poems written of her mother. Nonetheless — though approaching the moment with stoic determination — time and again composure escapes. Defeated, she moves on, admitting (to audience, to herself) that for the moment it's beyond her. To absorb the inherent tension of the ritual is to appreciate disingenuity has no place here.
Similarly charged, Esther's poetry — certainly, on this evening — invariably moves listeners from sympathetic receptivity to absorbed concentration. Her launch selection included a mix of material: tender, meditative, compelling, with the disarming directness (for instance) of 'For Mum on reading my poems'....
if you don’t understand them don’t worry don’t try to worry your way into them and
take them apart as if you must apprehend meaning don’t try to follow them the way you
would wounds on my body instinctively blindly don’t let yourself be hurt in the places
I’m hurt just because I’ve spoken of them....
leading to the denouement of its closing lines....
... now I step my way through things like an adult
clean up my own messes genuinely mostly cope so please take these outcries as
moments in the whole the numinous process and understand that at each turn I’ve been
steadied by this: your love.
... reminding me of a sometime reference by Geoff Page to Esther Ottaway's 'confessional directness'.
And augmenting the evening, the prevalence of generosity.... Esther shared the event with Tim Slade, whose collection The Walnut Tree was later launched by Pete Hay — you'd be forgiven for wondering whether Esther's role was merely to introduce Tim's collection, forgoing the bother of mentioning her own. 'It's a real pleasure to be launching with Tim Slade. We went to high school together, and we got back in touch with each other over the past eighteen months or so. Both of us were finalising manuscripts for these books, and he invited me to read at the amazing readings he compered up at Weldborough. So we helped each other a lot. For example it was Tim who told me I should be submitting internationally, and that directly led me to being shortlisted in the Montreal and the Bridport prizes last year, so thank you Tim. There's a lovely symmetry to launching together tonight, and you're going to love his work.'
To return to Jane's launch speech....
'It's not surprising to learn Esther grew up singing in a large extended family, her attentive use of
rhythm, combined with vivid controlled descriptions, makes for a truly pleasurable reading experience.
'I'll leave it to the poet to read the poems, I'll just cite and quote from a few of the many that I found so affecting.
'The first lines of some of these poems serve as little narrative hooks and I defy anyone not to be reeled in to read further ...Take, for example,the opening line from the poem "Two Heliotropes" - "your freckled face is evidence" and – from "How are you" - "I'm the photos that can't be looked at".
'The poem "Couple", for me is a perfect example of less is more. Here the poet curbs her extensive vocabulary, expertly using minimal tools to maximum affect. How can so few lines convey so much about relationships?
'"Hope of escape", commissioned by Tasmania's Festival of Voices, weaves the words of the poet's forebears and those of interviewed African women into a chilling account - when home becomes so inhospitable, so potentially deadly hope of belonging can only lie (sometimes at great cost) elsewhere.
'The poem "Broken Glass" is one of the longer poems in the book that traverses scenes from the poet's own childhood to those where she newly inhabits motherhood...all the way through, glass is used as a motif; for the beauty and fragility of those relationships, the clarity and distortion ... the last few stanzas paint a chillingly imagined picture symbolizing every mother's fear...it really is so astute.
'Thought-provoking and at times sobering but this is not a book without lightness of touch, even humour, testament to this are poems like - "On this my forty-fifth year" and "Perfect fit".
For female poets in particular those old pigeon holes of "domestic" and "confessional" have so soften been seen as reductive but like the best of "those kinds" of poets, Esther understands and respects the power of her subjects, of memory and of memory-making; her tributes are honedthrough a compassionate intelligence which encourages, I think, an expansion both of mind and heart.
'The inner landscape of human experience here is too broad to give way to any particular ism... but what I would say is that much of Esther's poetry is experiential - first fully lived then explored retrospectively then generously reimagined so that we might find something of ourselves reflected there. For this and for these intimate, low-voiced delicate things, I am grateful.
'So, words like honour and privilege are commonplace in book launch speeches I know, but it is my honour and I am privileged ... the poems are simply that good. Trust me I'm a poet ;)'